What is cadence?
Pretty simply put, it’s the number of steps taken per minute while running. It’s super easy to calculate too. A number of apps will do it for you but if you want to ensure accuracy you can’t beat the “manual” approach. Count the number of times one foot hits the ground within a minute and then double it.
The Golden Mean
When describing virtues, the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, said that they were found in the middle of two extremes. For example, courage is the “golden mean” between cowardice and recklessness. The two extremes are bad, the mean between the two is good. In the same way, an ideal cadence is likely to be in the middle between a super fast, Scrappy Doo leg spin and a super slow trot akin to that of a high jumper’s approach run.
That still gives a quite large span in which our “golden mean” could exist and lucky for us there’s been a fair bit of research done into the topic already. The best known and oft cited example when it comes to cadence is the work done by Jack Daniels, a well known and well respected running coach from the 1980s. Daniels observed the cadence of elite distance runners in the 1984 Olympics and calculated that the average cadence of those observed was 180 with most being very near to that average figure. This compares to an average cadence of recreational runners of somewhere around 160.
As a result of Daniels’ work, a lot of people have focused heavily on achieving and maintaining that golden 180 steps per minute. I would agree it’s a useful figure to aim towards, but it isn’t a guarantee of running success or a necessary prerequisite to achieving it.
The devil is in the detail
Let’s think about the situation in more detail. If every run was a race featuring identical people in identical conditions, then precise calculations could predict the ideal cadence. However, in reality, people who run can be tall or short, or light or heavy (or somewhere inbetween). They can go out for a super hard run or a steady trot. They can run uphill or downhill or on the flat. Given the number of variables that will affect an individual’s run, it seems unhelpful to suggest that everyone aim for a cadence of 180 steps per minute every time they go out for a run.
So should I care about my cadence
In short, yes. There is a fair bit of variation in what is appropriate for each individual, and 180 isn’t the golden number that must be attained for success, but if your cadence is wildly off this at say 100 or at 250 (imagine that!) then you might want to reconsider your technique. A more important reason to care is, in the words of Geoff Burns (an elite marathoner and University of Michigan doctoral student in kinesiology), that cadence is “a barometer and not a governor.” It’s worth monitoring and noticing any significant changes over time. It’s worth checking if generally an increase in cadence leads to faster or slower run times and if it makes a difference to how you feel post run. It’s not worth obsessing over trying to achieve a cadence of exactly 180.
How can I change my cadence?
If you do find yourself in a situation where you feel confident a change in cadence will make a significant impact to your running success then it’s worth thinking about how to put this into action. The most obvious approach is simply to regularly, throughout one run, monitor your cadence and make a conscious effort to speed it up or slow it down. Speeding up your cadence can often be facilitated by reducing your stride length. On the other hand, if slowing your cadence down is the goal, then don’t assume an increased stride length is the best approach. Increasing your stride length is a pretty reliable way to create a heel strike and by doing so reduce your efficiency and increase your chances of injury.
Perhaps a more reliable way to monitor or “control” your cadence would be to have a metronome playing at your chosen cadence with the BPM matching your intended cadence. Perhaps a more fun way of doing the same thing would be to find a playlist with music at your chosen BPM. A quick search on Google should find a wide selection of tunes to meet your tastes and cadence.
In conclusion, the chances are your cadence is slightly less than that of an elite athlete. If running like an elite athlete is your aim then increasing your cadence might be a good idea but it isn’t a silver bullet to improving your run pace. It’s a nice thing to know about and pay attention to but something for you to control, not something to control you.